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General University Museum with 18,000 Stored Artifacts

Aizu Museum

Yaichi Aizu (1881-1956) was a literary figure well known as a historian of eastern art and as a poet, calligrapher and essayist. The Aizu Museum at Waseda University is built around Aizu’s collection of artifacts arranged into the three categories of eastern art, modern art, and archaeology. It was opened in 1998 in Building No.2, a refurbished historical building that formerly housed the University Library, near the main entrance of the Waseda campus.

Yaichi Aizu (1881-1956), the famous literary figure who led the study of art history at Waseda University with his unique methodology (Photo: Jun Kato)

Yaichi Aizu graduated from Waseda University before taking a leading role in research into art history at Waseda University as a professor with Ph.D. Taught by Shoyo Tsubouchi, he also learned about ethnological methods from the lectures of Lafcadio Hearn (Yakumo Koizumi). Considering it essential to come into direct contact with artworks, he put his own money into collecting more than 4,000 Chinese burial objects, mirrors, tiles, etc.

From left: Ryota Nakakado, Assistant; Fumi Tsukahara, Director; Takeo Ozaki, General Manager

Although he proposed the foundation of a museum at the university at the end of the Taisho period, it did not become a reality until more than 70 years later. Along with the Aizu collection, many unique and valuable cultural assets previously stored within the university such as archaeological discoveries from the pre-war era, modern and contemporary artworks, Ainu cultural artifacts, and so on have also been gathered and housed in the museum. The museum has also received many other donations since it opened, including the Shigenori Tomioka Collection (the collection of the former Tomioka Art Museum), and its current total of artifacts is now more than 18,000.

We talked with Fumi Tsukahara, Director of the Aizu Museum and Professor on the Faculty of Law, Takeo Ozaki, General Manager, and Ryota Nakakado, Assistant and Curator, about the activities and philosophy of the museum as hub for the study of art history and archaeology at Waseda University, and as a university museum widely open to the public.

Preservation of the historical former library

The Aizu Museum is unique in being a cross-disciplinary operation. Decisions on items such as operational policy are taken by a committee of about 30 people composed of selected teachers from the various schools, the Director of the library, and the Director of the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum. Past Directors of the Aizu Museum have mostly been teachers from the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, but the current Director, Professor Tsukahara, was selected from the Faculty of Law and his predecessor, Professor Ken Yabuno, from the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

“Professor Yabuno is a well-known Western-style painter,” said Professor Tsukahara, “and the Director before him, Professor Katsuaki Ohashi, was a specialist in the history of Buddhist art and eastern art and the writer of a book on Yaichi Aizu. My expertise, on the other hand, is in the quite different areas of French modern thought (study on Jean Baudrillard) and contemporary art (Dadaism and Surrealism). But the museum is a valuable asset of the entire university. In order to make the best use of the existence of this museum in terms of education, research and local and social contribution, I believe we have to come up with and implement operational policies and concrete ideas from a wider perspective.”

Built in 1925 as the University Library from a design by architect Kenji Imai, the building is the second oldest in the university and designated as a historical landmark by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The design, influenced by the Expressionist movement as evidenced by the polygonal roof, the many graceful curves, and the carved openwork of eight-pointed star adorning the big door, was unique for a university building at that time. As you walk up the big staircase adorned with the large nihonga work Light and Darkness [Meian] by Taikan Yokoyama and Kanzan Shimomura, a large, high-ceilinged space opens up on the second floor.

“After the opening of the newly built Central Library in 1991, the university considered reopening the old library as a museum,” said Ozaki, General Manager. “First of all, regarding the conversion of the reading room in the large second floor space into an exhibit area, a proposal was put forward to use partitions to create several smaller exhibit rooms, but in the end, after a heated debate, the beauty of this large space was retained and an exhibit room created by the layout of exhibit cases.”

As you step into the second floor exhibit room, the exhibits make use of the large space to wonderful effect. The clever arrangement of sections containing Jomon pottery, modern and contemporary art, Ainu artifacts, large calligraphic works and paintings by Aizu, and so on, vividly conveys the character of this general museum. With its combination of historical artifacts and works of art, this university museum holds a unique place within Japan.

Left: Overall view of second floor exhibit room; Right: Central staircase seen from first floor lobby

Exhibition activities supported by young researchers

Items from the House of Spirits, or Haus Tambaran, of the Abelam Tribe, Papua New Guinea (from the Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition)

Relics from the Jomon Period to Heian Period, excavated from Okuboyama site (from Okuboyama – A History of the Use of the Azami Hills)

Since the foundation of the Aizu Museum, a Curator Room has been made available for full-time researchers with curator qualifications to conduct research into the museum’s artifacts or work on exhibition planning. There are currently three Assistants and one Adjunct Professor performing this work. The three Assistants are young researchers at Waseda University who have completed a graduate school doctoral program or are under tenure. The post of Adjunct Professor has been held since academic year 2004 by Professor Kyoko Asai, former Chief Curator at the Tomioka Art Museum, who is engaged in planning and running exhibitions in the Shigenori Tomioka Collection Gallery which opened in 2009.

One of the Assistants, Ryota Nakakado, is enrolled on a doctoral course at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences specializing in Japanese archaeology and ethnoarchaeology, and has researched Jomon culture in eastern Japan as well as ethnic culture in Papua New Guinea where even now the custom of making clay pot continues.

“With 18,000 pieces stored here,” said Nakakado, Assistant, “my aim is to continue researching mostly those items related to my area of specialization one by one, and to pass on to society the knowledge I have gained through exhibitions, the bulletin of museum, and so on. In academic year 2010, we received a donation from Tsurugashima City in Saitama Prefecture of 1,089 Papua New Guinean ethnic artworks, with which we then held an Oceanic Ethnic Art Exhibition in the first floor temporary exhibition room. Then, in academic year 2012, an exhibition was held at the temporary exhibition room and at Honjo Campus’s Reference Library called Okuboyama – A History of the Use of the Azami Hills, focusing on human life from the Jomon Period through to the modern day and including excavated artifacts from Okuboyama site lying beneath the university’s Honjo Campus.”

Aspiring to an Open Kind of University Museum

Envoy to Rome [Roma Shisetu], donated by the artist Seison Maeda

We also lend out works of art in response to requests from art galleries in Japan and overseas, and rent out exhibit space on campus. The latter is based on the concept of a campus museum, in which the entire campus should become a place of cultural communication. In the spring of 2013, we provided Seison Maeda’s painting Envoy to Rome (1927), the depiction of a young envoy of the Tensho embassy, to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, in Rome to be included in its Arte in Giappone 1868-1945 exhibition. The painting was shown in the section called The Maturing of Japanese Art.

“The appeal of our museum is that people can easily come to see truly unique exhibits, including celebrated works such as this,” said Professor Tsukahara. “Any Waseda University students, local residents, people on lifelong education courses at the Extension Center at Waseda University, and so on can just drop by while walking around the campus. It is also often used as a location for school trips from the countryside, university coursework, and external lessons for students from local schools.”

In the autumn of 2013, in line with the Waseda Culture and Arts Week, we are planning to hold various exhibitions, public symposiums, etc. on the theme of Connecting the Jomon Period to the Present. Our hope is to further develop the museum, as a hub of university knowledge based on our vast quantity of materials, and as a university museum that is open to the society and to the public.

Related links

Aizu Museum, Waseda University
Cultural Planning Section, Cultural Affairs Division, Waseda University
Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
Aizu Collection (Waseda University Cultural Resources Information Portal)